Being Overseas Indians

Being Overseas Indians

Priya Patel interviews two British-Indian siblings about their conflicting testimonies on identity and empowerment. Parul, the older of the two, was born in Uganda, and her brother Akshay was born in the UK. 



What does empowerment mean to you?

Empowerment for me comes from my freedom. I feel strong and con dent in the knowledge that I have the freedom to choose what I want.As a woman, it’s definitely easier to feel empowered in England, especially as an educated woman: I have more freedom than I would have back in India, unless I lived in one of the main cities.

Why did you move so much as a child?

We had no money.We relied on aid from the council, and it was hard to establish ourselves. English was my second language, so I struggled early on in school. It affected my education up to the age of 16, even 18. I got better and better as I started my career.

Would you say that you feel more British than you do Indian?

Now, definitely. If you had asked me when I was 20, before I was married, then I would have said no.That’s when my confidence grew. I feel that I have assimilated into society better, purely because my husband is more in touch with British culture. I can’t imagine myself being any other way. I think the way I am has helped my children, big time. I never wanted them to experience what I felt at school. I feel like I am stronger from having come from two cultures.

What was it like the first time you went to India?

I was 27. My parents were born in Africa, so they didn’t have as strong a connection to India as my husband and his family. He was born there, so he identifies with his roots much more than I do. The first time I went gave me such a comforting feeling. It was a revelation because I felt like I was really in touch with my ancestry. I loved being able to hop in a taxi and talk to the driver in our own language. It was amazing to visit the village our family came from, and to remember where we’ve all ended up, you know. America, England, Africa…

You mean other people from your village?

Many of the people in the village had the same experience as me. Lots of the younger generations saw opportunities overseas, purely because 50 years ago India was a very poor country. People did well in school and hopped on a boat: those seeking opportunity and who were prepared to take a risk for themselves and their family.You’d get a better life abroad.

Do you feel like a tourist in India?

No. No. I definitely feel like it’s another home. I’m definitely not a local, but not a tourist either. When we are in Dharmaj, the village where my husband is from, I feel like I am making a change. I help local children make a change in their lives. We’re sponsoring two children through school. One boy is becoming a chartered accountant like me. When we met him, he was a shy 15 year-old who couldn’t make eye contact. His mum cleaned houses and his dad was an alcoholic. Now he’s been auditing all over India. It gives me a sense of empowerment to know that my husband and I can give other children the opportunity our parents gave us by moving to England.

What is their perception of overseas Indian tourists?

There’s jealously but also pride. But India now is a force to be reckoned with. Especially in the bigger cities like Mumbai, there’s wealth and intelligence. When we go to India, we are learning about our heritage, our culture. We are learning about our ancestors and their lives. There’s a sense of pride for me, learning about the beautiful country I’m from. But, you know, I can wear the local clothes, think I look like a local and speak the language, but when I walk into a shop and say one word they know I’m from overseas. Immediately, the prices are inflated, and the products being showed to us are different. The local people simply can’t afford the finer fabrics, so we are given them instead. You’re treated nicely. Differently.

But then again, I think they like white English tourists more. Going through security at the airport, white tourists are treated differently. Indian women are given so much hassle. Europeans are given better treatment compared to a British-Indian or an Indian.They still treat me as an Indian, but not one of their own.When they want to, I’ll be treated as a foreigner, so they can sell their expensive products. But sometimes I’m treated as a local and thrown in with the hordes of local Indians at the airport retuning to the country. Sometimes it benefits me and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s conflicting and confusing. But in general, I feel like an Indian woman returning to a home away from home.



Has your upbringing had an effect on the way you culturally identify yourself?

My dad probably didn’t give a fair representation of being Indian. He was always quite negative about India when we were growing up: dusty, dirty etc.There was no celebration of heritage. Having said that, we knew we were Indian. We experienced racism.

What was it like growing up?

I got placed in a special class for those who didn’t speak English at home, the Chinese kid and the three Indian kids: it was assumed that we were going to need help because of our skin colour. I had a different upbringing from Parul. She was ve years older than me, and had traditional Indian friends, whereas my friends were all British kids. I spoke English with them, grew up with them and was surrounded by their culture. It affects how we see ourselves now. It was hard to feel empowered about anything when there was an internal con ict of identity. I knew I wasn’t one or the other, British or Indian: there was just a void. Sometimes I didn’t feel Indian and sometimes I didn’t feel British.

Did going to India change the way you had previously imagined the country?

The thing is, I kind of shed my dad’s way of thinking when I began to travel, because it opened my eyes. I could see that people living in these countries weren’t ‘backward’: they had a certain freedom to their lives that we will never have. Their lives are less orchestrated. I guess they have a sense of empowerment that we don’t have.

When you travel, do you feel a deeper connection to India than anywhere else?

I don’t feel any kind of deep-rooted connection. I think it’s a shame that I have less of an emotional tie to the country: my dad probably influenced me a lot. My formative years as a child weren’t spent thinking that India was my homeland. I don’t feel empowered when I go there, because people behave differently, and culturally there is a massive difference. Naturally I’m more Anglo- Saxon minded, I can’t help it. I can’t relate to a lot of the cultural ethos.

Do you speak Gujarati?

I can speak it but it’s very broken. I have to use gestures, such as indicating towards a bottle when I’m asking for a drink. I love going to rural places where people live simpler lives much closer to the land because I’m forced to speak the language, but it’s de nitely not second nature to me.

How do you think they feel about Indians overseas?

I think that 30-40 years ago they saw us as fellow Indians. Now, their identity has changed from being an underdeveloped county to a country with economic strength and empowerment. Their attitude towards us years ago is different to now. I think people in the UK and the States think that the Indians in India see overseas Indians as superior, but realistically, now cities like Mumbai have such a successfully educated population that there’s no real comparison to make other than cultural differences. I work with Indian immigrants who are intelligent and forward thinking. I don’t feel a sense of superiority or privilege. In the UK, your perception of freedom is readjusted: education and a stable career can give you financial freedom which, here, we think is a privilege, but with this privilege comes baggage. In India, for the majority, the lifestyle is more relaxed, and to some extent that’s an advantage that we don’t have.

Does going to India give you a sense of empowerment?

It’s a shame. When I went to Dhurmaj, I got used to speaking Gujarati, but then I travelled to Mumbai, which is in a different state and speaks a different language. I was aware of this but had forgotten, so at first I attempted to get by in Gujarati to little success.They immediately saw that I wasn’t a local. It was as if one of the strongest connections that I had with the country had gone. It’s a completely different world to the one I’m used to living in, but I find it fascinating to learn about how people live and the humbleness of their lives. It’s something I can’t relate to anymore, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to explore the country further.

This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine.

Illustration by Hannah Bruton